MH17: Netherlands in mourning as first bodies arrive home
Dutch Safety Board to lead international inquiry into cause of tragedy
Things run as they should in the Netherlands. So at 3.45pm precisely church bells around the country began to ring, tolling solidly for five minutes until the military transport plane carrying the first of the 193 Dutch passengers killed on Flight MH17 began its final descent into Eindhoven.
The bells suddenly silent, it was as if there was a nationwide intake of breath as the wheels of the Royal Netherlands Air Force C-130 Hercules touched the runway, and Operation Bring Them Home – the establishment of an “air bridge” between Eindhoven and Kharkiv – was finally under way.
There were 16 bodies on this first flight; another 24 followed immediately on a Canadian C-17. Their symbolic importance could not have been clearer: after one of the most shocking human tragedies in its history, the Netherlands had acted decisively and reclaimed its dead in the face of adversity.
As the Hercules taxied towards the waiting dignitaries, all air traffic was suspended for a few respectful moments at Schiphol Airport, about an hour away, from which MH17 took off a week ago, carrying 298 passengers and crew, 11 nationalities in all – on a journey that ended violently just hours later over the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine.
Flags at half-mast
With flags at half-mast on official buildings and private homes for the second time in days, public transport in the major cities also halted briefly, and motorists pulled in where they could at the side of the road to listen to confirmation on their car radios that the first remains had returned safely.
At Eindhoven, almost 1,000 relatives and friends of those who had died – their grief discreetly screened from the world’s media – waited a short distance from King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, accompanied by prime minister Mark Rutte, all observing a moment’s silence as the nation reflected on these swift, terrible and unexpected deaths.
Then the Last Post sounded – surely the single most overwhelmingly emotional moment the usually reserved Dutch nation has experienced since this awful saga began. Even the king reached across to hold his wife’s hand. If there is to be national catharsis, perhaps it began here.
The coffins were then carried to a fleet of gleaming black hearses to be ferried to a military base, the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks, in Hilversum, some 30km from Amsterdam, where formal identification will be carried out, a procedure experts say could take months.
Two of the country’s busiest motorways, the A2 and the A27, were closed temporarily as this unprecedented cortege made its way across the country, led by police motorcycle outriders – watched with an extraordinary mixture of horror and respect from every possible vantage point.
While yesterday was the public face of the repatriation, the Eindhoven-Kharkiv “air bridge” will continue to operate more discreetly until all of the bodies have been brought home, probably in the next few days.
A special ecumenical church service had been broadcast live the previous night from the Church of Sint Joris in Amersfoort, with the theme “Unity in grief”, a precise description of the spirit the people of the Netherlands have shown during the past week.
In Amsterdam, meanwhile, a silent evening march was held to commemorate the dead in another way, “by recalling them in the streets of the capital city where many of them spent most of their lives”, one of the organisers told the Irish Times.
The only note of controversy during a day dedicated to remembrance was when the mayor of Hilversum, Pieter Broertjes, called for President Vladimir Putin’s daughter Maria (29), who lives, he claimed, with her Dutch boyfriend near The Hague, to be deported from the Netherlands.
Having revealed the apparent whereabouts of Ms Putin, Broertjes later apologised on Twitter for his remarks, describing them as “unwise”. He said they “stemmed from a feeling of helplessness that many people here will have recognised during the past week”.
The Dutch Safety Board, which is leading an international inquiry into the downing of MH17, said it had found no evidence the jet’s black box had been tampered with. It also said it expected to get the information it needed from the crash site, although much evidence had been damaged or lost.
Experts have been downloading data from the Boeing 777’s voice and data recorders at Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch after pro-Russian rebels, who control the crash sites in eastern Ukraine, handed them over early on Tuesday.
“The Cockpit Voice Recorder was damaged but the part that contains the data was intact,” the DSB said in a statement. – (Additional reporting, Reuters)